The ground was but a blur beneath Skypaw's paws—she felt the energies of Time surging in her blood, but she couldn't focus. Adrenalin fueled her every movement, sending her sprinting along the shore as fast as if she wore her stripes.
She'd barely slept, and the alarm had been raised in ThunderClan. Lionstar had given her leave to go—but it had taken some time to convince him that no warrior would accompany her. Skypaw understood his concern for her; to get to RiverClan territory she would have to walk along the borders of either ShadowClan or WindClan land, both who she had fought against in the past, and both who had cats who held a grudge against her.
Alone was not the way Skypaw wanted them to find her—if they found her at all.
Just keep moving, she told herself firmly. Don't stop, don't take prey, and stay within the three fox-lengths from the water, and you should be all right, just fine...just fine...
Even so, her heart was pounding wildly in her chest. She was scared that her luck would fail her—Luck wasn't one of the Four; it was something else, and most certainly she wasn't specialized with that Tigermark.
The wind pummelled her ears and she flattened them, sprinting as fast as she could.
A part of her was torn, and Skypaw was marred with guilt. One of the thoughts was, Why did I not detect this sooner? She was feeling the exact same way she had felt with the fire, blaming herself for Flamefur's and Birchfall's deaths.
No. Stop this. Skypaw forced the thoughts aside. Her lungs were screaming for air and her legs felt like jelly. Her energy was spent, and Skypaw finally stumbled to an unsteady halt. The instant she did, her body seemed to collapse. The healing wounds on her belly were stretched and sore, and Skypaw drew deep breaths, slumped on the shore near the gently lapping water.
Despite the greater danger, she'd chosen to run along the shoreline of WindClan territory. Skypaw hoped that the blistering winds that currently roared along the hillsides, and the fresh layer of frost that had blanketed the moorland, had helped conceal her scent and keep the WindClan cats occupied. Skypaw really hoped that they wouldn't find her here, catching her breath and too tired, still injured, too fight.
I may have a Tigermark of Time, but I can't stand up to a full patrol on my own. Not in this state.
High above a hawk was circling, scouring the windswept lands beneath for prey.
Skypaw looked across the lake, gray as ash. The sky was dark and gave the impression of night in the day. Flecks of snow were still drifting on the breeze. She shivered as the tiny bits of frost pricked at her fur, and fluffed up her pelt in an effort to keep warm.
Her wounds were starting to sting. Skypaw gave a soft hiss of pain as she briefly examined them. Nosing through her fur, she detected the gashes under the touch of her nose. They were swollen and purplish with the cold, and though they were scabbed over completely now, they were very sensitive and easily aggravated. The cold morning helped keep the cuts numb, although Skypaw hated the uncomfortable feeling it left on the underside of her belly.
She rasped her tongue over them a few times, and then looked up quickly. Her insight was fizzing, alert and awake from the cold air; a WindClan patrol was starting to make its way across the moorland towards the lake.
I'd better get out of here. Skypaw leapt to her paws and hurried along the shore as fast as her tired body would allow her to. Still catching her breath from her panic-driven run from the abandoned Twoleg nest, through the charred forest, over the shore and halfway along WindClan territory, she could only jog. Her legs felt like stone.
She spotted a small clump of twisted heather, leaves blackened by the icy frost. Skypaw hurried towards it and wriggled beneath the stiff branches. She twisted a little to avoid the uncomfortable shore stones rubbing grit into her wounds, then lay still. She was out of most of the wind, at least, but out of sight? Skypaw prayed that she was.
Many heartbeats passed before she caught a whiff of their scent on the breeze, which had changed direction and was now blowing towards the heather bush. Skypaw peered cautiously out from beneath the heather in time to see the WindClan cats emerge onto the shore. There were three of them; Harespring, Emberfoot and Earthstorm.
Harespring lifted his muzzle and sniffed. "No immediate sign of any ThunderClan thieves," he growled.
"But I swore I caught a whiff of ThunderClan scent," protested Earthstorm, with a lash of his tail.
Oh, no...Skypaw pressed her chin to the ground and prayed to StarClan they wouldn't find her.
"Trust your nose," agreed Emberfoot. "Remember Sedgestar's orders: no mercy to the ThunderClan maggot-hearts. You see a ThunderClan cat, we send it squealing back to its territory with its tail between its legs. Not in any other way."
Harespring nodded. "We don't let the ThunderClan cat leave without a clawed pelt, and we don't kill," he growled. "They might not be following the code, but we will."
Earthstorm lifted his head again. "I can still smell ThunderClan. It's faint, though."
"The frost must be masking it," growled Harespring.
"Or..." Earthstorm drifted off, as though uncertain.
Skypaw watched Emberfoot spare a glance at the younger WindClan warrior. "Something wrong?"
"I don't think Chasefire was lying when she said..." Again, Earthstorm drifted off, and inside, something twisted in Skypaw's stomach. They know about me. They know about my power.
She chastised herself thoroughly. There goes my secret. The whole lake will know about it soon enough at the next Gathering...
"This again?" Harespring snorted. "Chasefire had been knocked out. Sure, Skypaw may be a good apprentice, but she's not a tiger, as Chasefire claims." He let out a mrrow of amusement. "She doesn't even have stripes!"
"But I saw her in the battle myself," Earthstorm protested, growing agitated. "I'd swear to StarClan that she was striped, and she was glowing!"
"Impossible," growled Harespring. He rolled his eyes. "You and Chasefire...you've always had hearts of kits."
Earthstorm flattened his ears. "I know what I saw!" he snapped. "You'd be wrong to doubt me otherwise! Even Sedgestar says that there's something weird going on with that ThunderClan apprentice!"
"She is the daughter of Dovewing," Emberfoot reasoned, "and kin to Jayfeather and Lionstar. It wouldn't completely surprise me to hear if Skypaw had some kind of strange power."
"It's more than that, though," Earthstorm meowed, his voice gaining power. "Chasefire said that when Skypaw started glowing, she started moving impossibly fast. She couldn't land another blow on her!"
"All right, enough with the fantasy." Harespring squared his paws and glared sternly at the young dark brown warrior. "We are here to patrol our borders and look for food. Nettlekit and Silverkit are growing fast and they're always hungry. Whatever Sedgestar and Chasefire, and you, believe about this Skypaw, it can wait until the next Gathering. It can even wait until we return to camp, if you're that impatient!"
Earthstorm had a low growl in his throat, but a stern glance from Emberfoot silenced him.
"Now," Harespring decided, flicking his tail commandingly at the rest of the patrol. "Let's move. I want to check the stream. The rabbits are always wandering around over there. And keep your senses alert for any new traces of ThunderClan in our territory." The three WindClan cats bounded away and out of sight and earshot.
Skypaw let out a soft sigh of relief as she cautiously crawled out from the heather. Though she was glad that the WindClan cast had moved off, she also felt guilty. Despite what had happened in the battle, despite being enemies with Boundwind and their friendship forgotten, she felt fond of his kits. Any kit of any Clan ought to be well looked-after and cared for, and to reach its apprenticeship healthily and safely.
And Hollythorn's kits...Skypaw felt a curious twinge in her belly. Hollythorn's kits were five moons old now. Just one moon away from being apprenticed...how time had flown by.
And Thrushsong, of course. Skypaw couldn't resist a glance across the lake, to the shadow of the ThunderClan territory that lay in the distance. Soon she'll be kitting Flamefur's kits...yet I don't understand. Why is she so ashamed? Did she even want kits with him?
The thought hit Skypaw like a blow to the head.
Did she ever love him?
She turned her attention away from her home and towards the distant marshes where RiverClan lay. Her pace quickened, from a trot, to a lope, and then to a racing stride. Right now, RiverClan needed her—and RiverClan's kits and two very young apprentices especially needed her now.
RiverClan territory swept into sight and Skypaw slowed her pawsteps to a trot. She halted at the edge of the border, for a moment hesitant. Should I just walk into their territory?
Bad idea, she told herself, especially after what RiverClan had learned at the last Gathering. They'd only jump to conclusions.
And yet the poison might already have struck RiverClan. The very thought made Skypaw chilled to the bone.
The snow was starting to turn wet, falling in patches of sleet that soaked Skypaw's fur. She shook it out and shivered, pacing restlessly on the spot as she tried to figure out what to do. Go in, or wait for a passing patrol? Her insight informed her that a patrol had only just passed, and another wasn't going to be passing nearby for many hours yet. Not until dusk, and Skypaw knew she couldn't wait that long. Already it was nearly sunhigh.
Suddenly, her insight informed her of something else. Cats were moving, in the area of the stream where a tendril flowed beneath a tunnel, made underneath a section of the distant Thunderpath.
Skypaw turned her head towards it. It was a long, damp trek across the marshes, but it might be a good place to try and meet with the RiverClan cats. Had they already discovered the poison? Were they trying to figure out what to do?
If Duckfeather is among them...She closed her eyes and called on her wisdom, trying to figure out who she would find if she journeyed there...
The image of two small bundles of fur seared through her mind, and Skypaw's eyes flew wide with horror.
Without a second thought she raced across the boundary and raced along the marshland. She hated the feel of the wetland beneath her paws—the water was strange under her pads, oddly warm and tingly—but she kept running, making a mental note to leap onto dry ground wherever it was possible.
The kits are playing near it...An old memory worked its way up to the surface, the story that the RiverClan warriors had told her and Ferndust at an older Gathering, of kits playing in the poisoned stream and coming back with sores...I can't let them get too close!
She thought she felt her abilities rear up and stripes stain her fur, but Skypaw couldn't tell if they did or not. But suddenly, the water was noticeably strange—beneath her, Skypaw saw that it was a mysterious colour. The water felt unnatural and the plants that grew around and near it were strangely-coloured and lifeless.
Just beyond, Skypaw caught the faintest squeak of a kit's high-pitched mewl.
"Aren't you worried that we'll get in trouble?"
"Don't be silly—Mother said that we could explore RiverClan, and we're not far from the camp!"
Mudkit and Splashkit. Skypaw knew their names at once.
She pushed her way through a tall-stemmed group of reeds to appear on the low, grassy bank across a small brook. Just beyond, she could see the two kits standing on the edge of a bank covered in dead grass, sniffing curiously at the tainted water that swirled below them. The dark mouth of the tunnel lay just beyond—the stone structure enclosing it, where the Thunderpath rested, was visible just a little way away.
"Besides," tiny Splashkit was mewling to her brother, waving her short stump of a tail, "I want to catch minnows!"
Mudkit anxiously kneaded the ground with his tiny brown paws. "But there aren't any minnows here...and the water smells funny!"
"No it doesn't," Splashkit protested. She leaned over the bank with a paw extended, round eyes searching for movement under her.
A sudden image of Splashkit floundering in the water filled Skypaw's mind. Before the apprentice could think, she leapt out of the reeds with a commanding yowl. "Stop! Don't touch the water!"
The two kits whirled at the noise and stared at her with huge, luminous eyes. They yelped in terror and scrambled hastily away from the bank.
"The water's dangerous," Skypaw explained as quickly and as gently as she could, even as she desperately tried to figure out a way to safely cross the stream. "It will hurt you and make you sore if you touch it or drink it!"
"Who are you?" Mudkit was trembling. "You smell strange."
"Are you RiverClan?" asked Splashkit, visibly a lot less afraid than her brother.
"I'm a friend," Skypaw answered carefully, for a moment reminded of Frostpaw and Jaggedpaw when they had been younger. "But what are you doing so far from the RiverClan camp? Your mother..." Her insight provided a name. "...Rushtail is very worried for you. She never said you could leave the camp!"
The kits exchanged guilty glances. Guessing that their immediate caution for her had lessened, Skypaw turned her attention to crossing the brook. Spotting a small stone protruding from the murky water, she drew energy into herself and jumped.
The stone was slippery beneath her paws and she wobbled. Mouse dung! Suddenly frightened of falling in the water, Skypaw slammed her hind legs against the stone and pushed off, reaching out for the other bank.
She landed, but her hind legs missed and splashed into the water. Suddenly a searing pain gripped Skypaw's belly, and it was all she could do not to unleash an agonized yowl.
She pushed herself onto the rest of the bank and free of the water, but she could feel it clinging to her fur. Her belly felt as though it were on fire and subconsciously she knew that the water had splashed against her mending gashes.
Fox dung...With a small groan, Skypaw pushed herself upright, swallowing back the pain for the kits' sake.
"Come on," she told them weakly. "I'll take you home."
The kits were staring at her with wide eyes. They must've heard her hiss of pain, but at her words they obediently, and warily, approached her. Suddenly Splashkit wrinkled her nose in disgust.
"Ew! You smell yucky!"
Skypaw flattened her ears, but quickly thought up an excuse: "The water smells really bad, as Mudkit mentioned. See, it's splashed all over my fur."
"Yeah, that's right," Mudkit mewled. "I'm glad I didn't touch the water now!" He shot a stern glance at his sister. "See, Splashkit? I said the water was yucky!"
"I wanted to catch minnows!" Splashkit protested, with a single sweep of her tail.
Skypaw beckoned with the tip of her tail. "Come on, little ones." She supposed it was a good way to introduce herself to RiverClan, by bringing back lost kits. Mudkit and Splashkit crept up to the front and led the way back to the camp.
"Did you touch the water at all?" Skypaw asked of them, and was relieved to see them shake their heads.
"Was about to, though," Splashkit murmured.
"Well, at least you didn't," Skypaw mewed to them. "Just make sure—" She broke off abruptly, stifling a gasp as her wounds began to sting worse than they had before. "—make sure that you don't go near the water again, yeah?" she managed to gasp out.
The kits were staring at her. At length, Mudkit mewed, "We won't. Ever."
"We'll never touch the water again!" Splashkit promised.
Well, that won't do... "Just not until you're apprentices," Skypaw told them firmly. Hopefully by then, if she managed to stop the flow of the poison, the waters would be clean and clear again and it'd be safe to swim in the water. "You're only a few moons old, after all."
The kits blinked, surprised. "How do you know?" Splashkit squeaked. "We've never even seen you before!"
"I just do," Skypaw answered as levelly as she could.
They walked for a little while, until Skypaw suddenly felt her senses tingle. A sense of danger filled her so suddenly that it seemed to cover the stinging sensation that was filling her stomach. Skypaw halted, and the two kits before her paused as well.
"What is it?" Mudkit yelped.
Skypaw twitched an ear, and then turned around. She didn't answer. Her insight was telling her that she and the kits weren't alone.
RiverClan cats. Skypaw's heart sank. Presuming the worst.
"Peace!" she yowled into the air, hoping that they'd listen. "I'm not stealing the kits!"
The kits stared at her with an incredulous expression in their eyes. They probably think I'm mad, Skypaw thought, and with good reason.
"Skypaw?" A moment later, the speaker emerged from the rushes, wearing a bemused, and slightly cautious, expression. Skypaw was relieved to see that it was Tangleheart, the young RiverClan tom that Duckfeather had once introduced her to. "What are you doing in RiverClan territory—and with our missing kits?" His eyes narrowed and he tilted his head questioningly to the side. His voice was neutral, but his stance was hostile.
"I found them upstream," Skypaw explained as quickly as she could—but the pain was returning all over again, making bile rise in her throat. "They were trying to fish in the stream—but the water's poisoned, it's poisoned just like it was all those moons ago."
Tangleheart's eyes widened. "What?"
"That doesn't explain why you're so far away from your territory on the other side of the lake," snarled a second speaker, and a moment later Pikefang emerged from the rushes, closely followed by Hollowflight and Whitefur.
"Or how you conveniently managed to find our kits just in time," Whitefur added, lashing his tail.
"Besides," Hollowflight added, curling his lip, "your Clan has taken to stealing WindClan prey. ThunderClan must be moving on to stealing RiverClan kits, and maybe progress to stealing ShadowClan territory..."
"I'm not stealing them," Skypaw growled, gritting her teeth as a wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm her. "But there was a sign." She thought fast. "Aura had a sign, that poison was going to come back to RiverClan. She sent me to warn you, and I happened upon the kits."
"Aura had a sign?" Pikefang lashed his tail. "Why would she help us?"
"She won't have another Clan suffer," Skypaw reasoned.
A thoughtful pause hung between the RiverClan warriors. "True," Tangleheart conceded slowly. Then he frowned. "Just you? Nobody else?"
"I was the best that they could send," Skypaw answered carefully.
"Because all the others are stealing WindClan prey, more like," Whitefur sniffed.
Think, Skypaw, think. "WindClan and ThunderClan's squabbles will remain between those Clans," Skypaw told them quietly. "It doesn't concern RiverClan. But it does concern the lake if the poison has come back. It might make its way to ThunderClan shores and spread to all the other territories of the lake."
"So this is a matter of redeeming yourself, is it?" Hollowflight twitched an ear.
"Nothing of the sort." Skypaw breathed deeply, suppressing a hiss as her wounds began to sting harder than before.
But Tangleheart noticed her tense. "Skypaw, are you okay?" he asked, approaching her.
"Wounds," Skypaw grunted. "Got splashed...crossing to help the kits..."
"Wounds?" Tangleheart frowned. "What wounds?"
"Finally got caught by a WindClan patrol, were you?" growled Whitefur.
"Correction," snapped Skypaw, "they were stealing a rabbit from our territory. However, we actually caught them in the act and they were appropriately..." She stifled another small hiss of pain. "...punished."
Tangleheart sniffed her fur, and then his eyes widened. "This is the poison, all right."
"So it really has returned?" Pikefang's eyes were wide.
Tangleheart hesitated for only a moment. Then he turned to his patrol and meowed, "Whitefur, Pikefang, head up towards the Thunderpath tunnel and assess the situation there. If the poison has returned, we need to make sure and get the news to Reedstar right away." The two RiverClan cats gave a single nod and slipped soundlessly into the rushes. Tangleheart turned his attention back to Skypaw.
"You and the kits are to come with me and Hollowflight. You'll explain to Reedstar in person why you've come—and let Willowshine check your wounds."
Skypaw gave a single nod and wordlessly fell into step alongside the RiverClan warriors.
As they entered the camp, Skypaw immediately felt the eyes of all the RiverClan cats descend upon her. Whispers floated around the clearing.
"That's that ThunderClan apprentice, Skypaw."
"That one who defeated the bear?"
"Who's friends with that Aura character?"
"Duckfeather's friend, more like."
"Probably caught stealing prey from our territory."
"Wait—the kits!" Splashkit and Mudkit were padding between Hollowflight's legs, looking sheepish. Suddenly Rushtail, who had been sitting fretfully outside the nursery being comforted by Duckfeather, her sister, leapt to her paws with a cry of relief and pounded across the clearing towards her little ones.
"Where have you two been?" she demanded fiercely as she covered them in licks. "You've had the entire camp worried for you for hours!"
"We just went exploring!" Splashkit yelped, protesting beneath her mother's frenzied tongue.
"Skypaw?" Duckfeather trotted across the clearing, wearing a puzzled expression. "What are you doing here?"
Skypaw was glad that there was at least one cat who didn't treat her like an enemy. Even though they've a right to. "I found the kits," she told her quietly. "About to splash in poisoned water."
"She says that the poison's returned," Tangleheart mewed grimly. Duckfeather's eyes widened in horror.
"No—no! That can't be!" Duckfeather glanced at the kits. "Did they—?"
"They almost did," Skypaw mewed stiffly. Her stomach was churning faster than before, and speaking was difficult. "The water's really poisoned up there, Duckfeather. Whitefur and Pikefang have gone to investigate, but I've seen it." And am still experiencing what it does.
"But how'd you find the kits at all?" Duckfeather asked urgently. "You live on the other side of the lake, and the stream's quite deep into RiverClan territory."
"Nobody gave you permission to cross the borders," growled Hollowflight.
"Oh, hush," Duckfeather snapped. "She saved the kits—she can at least be treated a little less with hostility."
"We've only got her word for it," Hollowflight reminded her haughtily.
"And Aura's," Tangleheart added. "Now I know that young cat—and she certainly doesn't seem like the sort to let kits suffer, even if they're in a different Clan."
"But what would she know?" Hollowflight kneaded the ground. "Aura wasn't even born at the lake! She's just a rogue's kit with a suspicious amount of knowledge about the Clans. Remember the last cat who was like that, all those seasons ago? I heard the stories about him, and his word nearly made ShadowClan separate themselves completely from their ancestors!"
Skypaw winced, but not at the pain this time. He's closer to the truth than he knows!
"So what?" snapped Duckfeather, with a lash of her creamy tail. "Aura isn't Sol—she's the age and size of an apprentice, who has chosen to help us. We should be grateful that she even bothered to send Skypaw to find and help the kits!"
"Of course you'd say that," growled Hollowflight, "given that you're good friends with Skypaw and Aura."
"I am friends with them," Duckfeather answered shortly, "which is why I'm telling you that you can trust them. Aura isn't even a warrior, and Skypaw's on her own. If they really were planning on stealing the kits or being a threat to RiverClan, don't you think that ThunderClan would've been a little bit more sensible and sent more than an apprentice?"
Hollowflight hesitated, mulling her words over. Then he simply nodded and growled, "I'll let Reedstar decide what to do with Skypaw." With a disdainful flick of his tail, he stalked across the clearing, but threw over his shoulder, "Don't say I didn't warn you if I turn out to be right."
Skypaw gritted her teeth in frustration.
"Just ignore him," advised Duckfeather. "He's only being a fish-brain."
"He acts like he's deputy."
"Well, he shouldn't." Tangleheart flicked the tip of his tail. "Mallownose won't be too happy about that."
Movement outside the leader's den attracted Skypaw's attention. She glanced forward to see a sleek black tom—and one who she recognized from attending many Gatherings—slip out from the entrance, with a light brown tabby tom in tow. The leader and deputy of RiverClan's attention immediately shifted to her. She lifted her chin and held her head high, determined to appear unafraid.
"I know you," Reedstar meowed as he crossed the clearing. "Skypaw, isn't it? What are you doing in RiverClan territory?"
"Stealing prey?" Mallownose checked with a low growl.
Skypaw shook her head. "A warning."
Reedstar frowned. "Warning?"
"Skypaw told me and the rest of my patrol that the poison has returned," Tangleheart mewed grimly. He brushed his tailtip against Skypaw's flanks and added, "This apprentice encountered our two missing kits about to play in it." His eyes shadowed. "You know what happened last time."
"The poison?" Mallownose's eyes rounded in disbelief.
"While getting to the kits, Skypaw slipped into the stream," mewed Tangleheart. "Cuts on her stomach are stinging from the water, and I can smell it on her fur. It was fortunate she stopped Splashkit and Mudkit from sharing a similar fate."
"Where's the rest of your patrol?" inquired Reedstar.
"Investigating the Thunderpath tunnel."
"Good. They'll have evidence soon enough."
Skypaw swallowed back rising bile. She felt shivery and as weak as she had felt when she had contracted greencough. If a full-grown apprentice feels this way getting into contact with the poison, no wonder the queens kitted stillborn kits when they ate poisoned fish.
"Now, as for this 'warning'," Reedstar continued, turning his dark gray eyes to Skypaw. "We'll continue this discussion in my den, I think—and a few other questions as to what you were doing in RiverClan territory at all."
"She needs Willowshine's attention first," Duckfeather put in fiercely.
Reedstar shot Skypaw a glance. "You said you made contact with the poison?"
Skypaw nodded. "I have some healing wounds—the water went into it, and now they sting as badly as the day I first received them."
Reedstar frowned, the tip of his dark tail twitching. Then he mewed, "Send for Willowshine, then. She can assess Skypaw after I discuss why she is in our territory." Mallownose nodded and padded away. "Can you manage until then, apprentice?" Reedstar added.
Skypaw stiffly nodded.
"Good," Reedstar mewed. "Then please follow me. You too, Tangleheart. Duckfeather, make sure that the kits are all right, and that they've had something to eat—and check all the fish in the fresh-kill pile for poison. No point having our warriors get sick—and keep unchecked prey away from the elders!"
"Now, Skypaw." Black tail curled over black paws, and fixing the young apprentice with a stone-coloured stare, Reedstar assumed the stance that a Clan leader used to deal with intruders. "Start from the beginning. To make one thing clear, however; you were not stealing RiverClan prey?"
They were in the quiet and privacy of Reedstar's den, and although Skypaw's wounds were still hurting and aching, she forced her head to remain high and no pain to tremble beneath her words.
"No," she mewed. "No prey was taken."
Reedstar gave a single nod. "Very well. Now, how did you know to find our kits?"
"Skypaw claimed that Aura predicted where they were," Tangleheart put in. "She gave Skypaw a message to take to us, and successfully found the kits."
Reedstar frowned. "Aura did this?" He turned to Skypaw. "Why?"
Skypaw hesitated, thinking fast. "Even though Aura wasn't born at the lake," she mewed quickly, "she was born in a Clan—she said that herself, all those moons ago when she first attended a Gathering. The code states that no kit may be neglected or left to danger, no matter what Clan it comes from—seeing Splashkit and Mudkit in danger of poison, she told me to help them, because RiverClan warriors weren't going to get there in time."
"What Clan did she say that she came from again?" asked Tangleheart.
Skypaw paused. I won't say SunClan. "She grew up near SkyClan," she mewed. "She learned traditions and ceremonies, and the warrior code. And a lot of other things. Shewas blessed with extraordinary wisdom."
Reedstar twitched the tip of his tail left and right. "So Aura saw our kits in danger, and sent you to find them," he mewed quietly. "And ThunderClan is suddenly choosing to follow the code again?"
Skypaw gritted her teeth in frustration. We had no choice! "I was not stealing prey."
"You may not have been this time." Reedstar's voice was neutral. "And I must ensure that the safety of my Clan precedes all other things. I thank you for helping our kits, however—and alerting me of the threat of the poison." He paused. "And this warning that you mentioned?"
Skypaw felt her stomach churn uneasily—nothing to do with the poison, either. She hesitated for a moment, trying to think how to phrase it best. Then, at last, she mewed, "Aura believes that...that the Dark Forest is returning."
Tangleheart's and Reedstar's eyes widened. The Clan leader was on his feet at once. "What? Impossible!" he exclaimed. "We defeated them generations ago!"
"They're rebuilding an army," Skypaw explained quickly. "Led by the few remaining Dark Forest cats who fought and survived the battle. Your kits and apprentices are in danger still, and not just from the poison that has returned to your waters. Mapleshade has her eyes on your younger RiverClan cats."
"Mapleshade?" Reedstar's gaze narrowed. "A Dark Forest cat, I presume?"
"She has a grudge against RiverClan. A huge grudge." Skypaw's Tigermark informed her of Mapleshade's history. "She was a former ThunderClan cat but was exiled from her Clan when she had half-Clan kits—half ThunderClan, and half RiverClan." Reedstar's eyes widened, but Skypaw quickly went on. "Mapleshade was turned away from RiverClan when she went to them with her kits. Her mate chose another, and Mapleshade's kits drowned when she tried to carry them across the river. Mapleshade swore that she'd make the Clans pay, and has stalked the Dark Forest ever since."
Tangleheart shook his head in frank disbelief. "I don't believe this..."
"And Mapleshade's mate," Skypaw added quietly, "he ended up being the grandfather of Shellheart—who was Crookedstar's father."
"Really?" Reedstar's ears flicked forward. "Mapleshade seems to have ties to RiverClan that she isn't going to forget so quickly."
"She holds grudges, Reedstar—and the Dark Forest is gaining power again. This is what Aura meant when she told all of us at the Gathering, all those moons ago, about a great and terrible danger coming to the lake." Skypaw drew a deep breath. "The danger still looms. It's approaching, and fast. Aura knew this, and sent me to warn you of this more directly...because she and I believe that Mapleshade is going to come to RiverClan to kill the kits and apprentices herself."
Tangleheart's eyes widened in horror. Reedstar stared.
Then, after a moment he mewed, "And I presume that you are going to be the one to stand against her?"
Skypaw frowned. "What? I..."
"You speak as though you have some gift," Reedstar pressed, and flicked one ear. "You know Mapleshade very well for a messenger. And you seem to believe as strongly as Aura that she's going to come to the camp. Rather like you and Aura share more than a simple friendship."
Skypaw recollected her last words and chastised herself again for the second time that day. What a foolish mouse-brain I am. Deciding that since WindClan already seemed to know, there was no harm in telling Reedstar—especially if what he said was true, and she would have to face Mapleshade.
"Yes," she mewed wearily. "We share more than a simple friendship."
Reedstar nodded. "I thought so. Now, Skypaw, how do you know of these things?"
"I have a power," Skypaw explained. "It allows me to use Time to its fullest extent. I can call on it to aid me in battle, or to see into the future—and the past. It gives me insight, and wisdom."
"So you're saying that you're like Aura?" Tangleheart stared in amazement at her.
Skypaw shrugged. "In a way. But my insight is nowhere near as strong as hers." She turned to Reedstar. "I found the kits on my own ability, and came to warn you about the poison. I found myself in the Dark Forest two nights ago—not by will—and overheard Mapleshade and several other Dark Forest cats discussing their plans. They spoke of the poison weakening ShadowClan—and Mapleshade said she'd visit RiverClan personally. I was nearly caught, but they knew I was there."
Reedstar was silent for a long time, slowly processing this new information. Then he mewed quietly, "So Mapleshade is to come to the camp? She intends to kill Splashkit and Mudkit?"
Skypaw nodded uneasily. "And the new apprentices, Frogpaw and Marshpaw."
"And despite this," Tangleheart asked quietly, "you chose to come and help us?"
Skypaw nodded. "The four Clans need to be strong. What is to come will be deadly, dangerous. I swear on my life that I will help you and use my abilities to help protect your Clan, against both poison and Dark Forest."
Reedstar looked curiously at Skypaw. At length he mewed, "You seem different somehow, Skypaw."
She nodded again. "I am different, Reedstar. More than you know—and the Dark Forest knows this, and fears this. It's my destiny to protect the lake from them. It's why Aura chose to come to ThunderClan—to mentor me and guide me along my path."
Reedstar was silent for a few moments on. At length, he mewed, "How long do you plan to stay with us, Skypaw?"
"For as long as I need to," Skypaw answered in all honesty. "Then I will take my leave, once I know for certain that RiverClan is safe from the Dark Forest and the poison."
Reedstar nodded. "I'll have Willowshine tend to your cuts," he mewed. "Then you can join a patrol and aid in removing the source of the poison from the stream. I take it that we'll be glad to have your insight aiding us. Perhaps none will die from the poison this time—now that we have a bit of hope."
"You look half-starved," Duckfeather remarked as she deposited a round-bellied carp in front of Skypaw. "Here."
"Thank you." Skypaw sniffed the fish, and her belly growled at the prospect of food. She hadn't had a full stomach in days, and she tore into the fish hungrily.
Duckfeather stood nearby and purred with amusement. "I take it that you are half-starved, then?"
Skypaw nodded, her mouth full of carp. She swallowed and answered, "Food's been really scarce since the fire swept through ThunderClan territory. We hardly have enough to feed ourselves."
Duckfeather twitched the tip of her tail. "Hence why you've been stealing from WindClan?"
"Sadly, yes. But we're starting to find more food now. It's beginning to return slowly to the woods, though we probably won't be well-fed until newleaf comes around again." Skypaw took another bite of fish. The taste wasn't as unpleasant as she had expected, and she was relieved that she'd be able to sleep with a full stomach tonight.
The sleek-furred RiverClan warrior sat down opposite her and mewed, "So Reedstar really is letting you stay—or is he holding you prisoner until he can spare the warriors to escort you back to your territory?"
"Allowing me to stay, fortunately." Skypaw hesitated for a moment. She'd asked Reedstar and Tangleheart to keep her revealed secret hidden from the rest of RiverClan—it'd help avoid uncomfortable questions. Though Duckfeather had been her first RiverClan friend, and one of her closest, Skypaw didn't want to tell her until the time was right.
Still, Duckfeather was puzzled. "Why's he letting you stay behind?"
"I'm to help with removing the poison from the water, now that I'm here. Reedstar needs all the paws that he could get."
"But isn't your Clan worried about you?"
"They know I'll be all right. Lionstar gave me leave to go."
Duckfeather frowned. "If I were Reedstar, truthfully I'd be worried that you'd learn RiverClan secrets that you'd use against us if we ever collided in battle."
A fair point, Skypaw conceded. "There are more demanding issues to worry about than petty Clan squabbles," she mewed. "I mean, ThunderClan already has a war going on with WindClan—we don't want another with RiverClan or we'd be completely outmatched. And we still have bad blood between us and ShadowClan." She hesitated, flexing her claws absently—the very same that had clawed out one of Rowanstar's eyes.
"Well..." Duckfeather flicked her tail. "I can't say that I'm glad that you're staying around in RiverClan—naturally, my Clan comes before our friendship—but I'm pleased that at least we have another set of paws to aid with the poison." Her eyes shadowed. "To be honest," she murmured, "I just can't believe it's back..."
Skypaw pitied her friend. Duckfeather had seen the devastating effects of the poison the first time that it had come to the lake, along with many other RiverClan warriors. To have it return and threaten her Clan a second time...
This is probably how survivors of the first Dark Forest invasion will feel, when the Dark Forest threat is announced to all ears, she thought grimly. Or how my Clan would feel if a second bear made its way into ThunderClan territory...
Skypaw was slightly surprised to see that she had already finished the carp, and her stomach was contentedly full. Duckfeather gave a small mrrow. "You ThunderClan cats and your appetites," she chuckled.
Skypaw stood up. "What should I do with the remains?"
"Bury them," Duckfeather advised. "Dig a small scoop in the ground and put the remains there."
"Kind of how we bury the bones of our prey back home," Skypaw mused thoughtfully as she dug a small hole in the soft, damp ground beneath her. Her wounds stretched with each taut, controlled movement, and she winced each time she had to do a vigorous digging.
Willowshine had treated the gashes and bound them with strands of rush, but they still hurt. Most of it had been removed by eating a few sprigs of yarrow—Skypaw did not enjoy the experience that quickly followed, and by the slightly disgusted expression Willowshine had worn, nor did the RiverClan medicine cat—but the traces would linger for a little while yet.
Skypaw looked out over the RiverClan camp. RiverClan warriors left and right were gathering for their evening meal, and whispering anxiously amongst themselves about the returned poison. Rushtail, the queen, wasn't letting her kits out of her sight for a single moment. Mudkit and Splashkit, too young to take the threat seriously, were happily playing with one another in the middle of the clearing, tumbling and tussling and batting each other with their feather-soft paws.
"Thank you for saving them," Duckfeather mewed quietly. "I'm relieved beyond words they didn't share the fate of so many kits that preceded them. They're RiverClan's future, as are all kits born here."
Skypaw nodded mutely. "They're bright little ones. I'm sure they'll make fine warriors in the future."
"Mm," Duckfeather agreed, but her thoughts seemed elsewhere.
Skypaw glanced at her. "Are you thinking about the first poisoning?" she asked softly.
Duckfeather nodded. Her eyes were pools of sadness. "Those were dark days indeed for RiverClan," she murmured. "Queens birthing stillborns...kits being crippled and dying...even the warriors suffered from the most severe cases of bellyache that Willowshine had ever seen."
She sighed. "I had hoped...prayed, even, if our prayers can still be heard by StarClan...that we'd be safe. That RiverClan would prosper for many generations. I mean, our Clan's grim trials were over, and we'd get some peace for a little while, surely. Reedstar is a good leader, strong-minded and courageous as his mother. He guides us well in the days after Mistystar breathed her last.
"But when we have finally had the courage to begin kitting again, even to see young Frogkit and Marshkit become apprentices and take new names..." Duckfeather shook her head slowly. "Now the poisoned water's returned and we're scared. We might starve, or lose Splashkit and Mudkit."
"You won't," said Skypaw at once. "Definitely not."
Duckfeather's ear twitched. "I wanted to believe the same back in the time of the first poisoning," she muttered. "But..." Her voice trailed off.
Skypaw sat up. "Duckfeather?" When the RiverClan she-cat didn't answer, Skypaw murmured, "Did you lose someone to the last poisoning?"
Duckfeather was quiet for a very long time.
Then she breathed, "Everything."
Skypaw stared in concern at her friend. She hadn't realized, for all her insight, that Duckfeather could have suffered during the poisoning. Was it because Duckfeather was always so friendly and positive, always kind to her and Ferndust?
"I didn't tell you at the Gathering," Duckfeather mewed after a moment. "I didn't want to upset you, or myself, by going back to those memories of the first poisoning too much. Grayeyes and Ferndust spoke mostly of the memory for me...but old wounds take the longest to heal. They're reopened, Skypaw, and...and..."
She heaved a trembling sigh. "During the time of the first poisoning, Skypaw, I...I was pregnant."
Skypaw's eyes widened. "Y-you were?" she gasped stupidly.
Duckfeather nodded. "I was carrying Shellclaw's kits. He and I were so proud that we'd have a family to ourselves soon...but then the poison struck. Kits came back from playing in the stream with sores and cuts to their faces, sores so bad that though Willowshine worked her hardest to help them, some succumbed. Some were only a few moons old, around the age of Splashkit and Mudkit, when they were poisoned.
"You know Whitefur and Grayeyes, yes? They were young kits during the time of the poisoning, perhaps three or four moons of age. They were very fortunate. Willowshine saved their lives, but not the life of their sister, Bluekit. I hope she is safe and sound in StarClan. Whitefur and Grayeyes, though, were the only kits who survived through the poisoning. All the rest joined Bluekit.
"Warriors weren't safe from the poisoning, either. Two warriors died to poisoned fish before we'd even realized the water was dangerous. When we stalled the poison's source, we thought we'd saved the Clan—by then, I was getting very close to kitting. Finding the source of the poison and stopping it had taken a whole moon.
"But we were wrong. One day Shellclaw went hunting just for me, and he came back with this magnificent trout, large as a salmon and big enough for the both of us. He said it was a gift from StarClan, it was so fat. It fed the both of us. In the night I was woken by Willowshine to be told that Shellclaw was very sick. I stayed by his side all through the evening, praying to StarClan that they'd spare his life...but they claimed him at dawn." Tears filled Duckfeather's eyes and she looked down at the ground.
"When I started showing symptoms of the same poisoning that had taken my beloved mate, Willowshine immediately treated me. I got better quickly, but Willowshine struggled to understand how I had eaten more of the poisoned trout than Shellclaw, and yet I was not as sick as he was, or showed symptoms as early as he had. Then I kitted—and the truth came out. Most of the poison had infected the kits rather than me, and I had been spared...but my litter of four had not.
"There is nothing more horrifying for a queen to birth dead kits...just as there is nothing more devastating than losing the one who you love. The poison took both from me, and for a long time I despaired, didn't eat, rarely slept. It was only seasons later, when Robinwing and his mate had Smolderfur and Thornfoot, that I realized that though I had lost my mate and my kits, I still had my Clan who loved me and cared for me—and I was not alone in my suffering. Rushtail—my sister, who is now the proud and concerned mother of Splashkit and Mudkit—was pregnant during that time as well, and she kitted a litter of stillborns just like I. Knowing that my sister shared my pain was probably what stopped me from drowning myself, truth be told."
Duckfeather sighed. "Since Shellclaw's death I have found no joy at the thought of becoming a mother, not after the pain I've suffered and those who I have lost—Rushtail had the strength to try again, and I am proud of her. I love her little ones. But I will never choose a mate again, or have kits. I will never love a tom as much as I loved Shellclaw."
Skypaw hardly knew what to say in response to Duckfeather's story. At length, she murmured, "I...I'm so sorry for you..."
"Don't be." Duckfeather lifted her head, her eyes clear. "The past is the past—my kits and my mate are safe in StarClan, as was meant to be. They are waiting for me, and I for them. I do not need your pity, Skypaw—though I am frightened for Rushtail's kits, and though I am scared for how Rushtail might react to the returning of the poisoning, I must stay strong for the pair of them. I will make sure that the poison does not hurt anyone in my Clan ever again. We are wiser now."
Yes, Skypaw thought fiercely. Mudkit and Splashkit will not succumb to this poison—and Mapleshade's claws will not touch them. Time is with you and your kin, Duckfeather. I promise.